Poetry. In Susan Hankla's debut poetry collection, CLINCH RIVER, Appalachian women can dirt in Mason jars, push husbands down wishing wells, and try to read the signs on Hostess cupcakes. This landscapes is made of thorns, where the golden fleece of ambitions snag on troubles. A woman leaves town just so she can write a love letter to her husband. Another dispatches her man down the well. A real body of water in Appalachia, the Clinch is also a clenching river that baptizes souls as it takes them. Through lyrical narrative poems peopled by school friends, veterans, and ghosts, Hankla presents the poverty of the psychic wound, such as regret, as well as the wounds that poverty asserts, such as longing. The axe of fate chops off the tip of Junior's index finger, and we follow him till he is transparent. Some wounds heal over time and a narrator enters her doppelganger, Glenda, to give us that sturdy girl's one-eyed view. Following her into middle age, we'll hear her tell it like it is, when her friend can't. Wearing a red sweater, the narrator tries to leave the premises, but comes unravelled, as if it's Glenda who makes sure of her return, so that together, they bear witness to the issues of cooking with lard and slaughtering hogs, of crazy men and the deaths of them.
"There ought to be some hoopla for Susan Hankla's CLINCH RIVER. Her pure Americana--ghosts, abandoned houses, unfinished dreams, and censored lives--conjures up Nick Cave and Bobbie Gentry (think 'Casket Vignette' or 'Niki Hoeky') at their finest, maybe collaborating on a southwestern Virginia version of Our Town, or else it's like Dorothy Allison writing a southern gothic Spoon River Anthology with Frank Stanford. Hankla can really move mountains and sing. Boy howdy can she sing."--Richard Peabody
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The Clinch River, flowing through Appalachian Virginia, presents a central theme in poems peopled by school friends, some real and some not, who live in lands touched by the river. Susan Hanka, a native of Richland Virginia paints through her poetry a compelling picture of the region, the people who live there and the emotions that rule their lives.
There is a novel like quality to the book with reoccurring characters and settings but it also speaks to a symphony construct as well where themes are repeated in movements throughout the work. One gets to know characters from the Clinch such as Junior, the Veteran, the Ghost, and especially Glenda where we follow her into middle age. Themes repeat throughout the book such as the sunflower that comes to visit in many poems, aging throughout the book as a metaphor for holding onto the cherished memories of one’s youth, memories that are fading but always there.
I would highly recommend Clinch River as way to connect with and emotionally understand a segment of America that may be dying but has influenced a generation steeped in values not well understood by those who have not lived them. I just have to thank Susan for sharing her life within this book and allowing us to visit a world that many of us have never experienced.